I feel reluctant to be talking about fiqh and adab and sensitivity issues when we have such a tragic backdrop of the deaths of hundreds of thousands on land and sea fleeing from al-Assad and the Syrian Regime. Our thoughts should be focused on overcoming the pain of the graphic photos and videos and instead looking to help support refugee charities and creating political pressure upon the criminals who have allowed this to happen, but we shall probably see instead a glut of comments on how we shouldn’t share photos of the dead instead.
And here I am with my comment saying the same too. And it doesn’t make me feel any better explaining myself either. Or writing clever little lines of poetry describing the tragedy as some sort of ointment for my grieving soul.
But ultimately, there are many who have died and many more that shall die. And whilst we try to save as many as we can in whatever way possible, it is important to save our souls and hearts too. And to know what our Islamic sensitivities tell us to do as well.
Death is inevitable, especially in these impossible situations that are blighting Third World countries yet caused by the political games of the Developed World.
But the inevitability of death should never justify the spreading of despair. And that is what these photos and videos do: inculcate the most heavy and painful feelings of dread, sadness and helplessness that only serves to harm people as opposed to bring actual, real benefit.
If there was benefit in being shocked by the dead, or being outraged by loss of life in all the insane ways we witness today, the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) would have indicated it so.
However, he did the exact opposite. Never did anyone die except that the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) would rush to have the body covered, often by any means necessary. So if cloth was unavailable, then even plants would have to do. Anything. Everything. Whatever it takes to protect the honour of the dead, to preserve the sanctity of those who are intrinsically sanctified: Bani Adam or “humans” as we know it.
Political/social benefits/advantages which are gained through raising awareness of crises and tragedies using shocking photos of the dead and murdered, are subjective at best. Whether the aim is to stoke the fire of revenge, or to inspire people to donate and be more charitable, we do not have the right to use the dead in such campaigns.
There is little doubt that people react very emotionally to such pictures. Who from among us did not recoil in horror and cry when we saw the heart-rending photo of this drowned Syrian child on the Turkish shore? Who didn’t immediately start to think about the whole Syrian issue again, the refugee crisis again, thinking about what we can do, where can we donate, what is possible for us in our countries?
Of course that all happened, and naturally some will see this as a positive outcome which will help prevent further tragedy, and it was achieved by a necessary evil because “the means justifies the ends.”
That’s all fine and understandable, but who asked the permission of the dead? That’s not a rhetorical question. If we were trying to raise awareness in some kind of PR campaign and we wanted to use a living person in that campaign, we would have to ask his or her permission. This is undoubted. So why do you not accept that we need to see them the same way when they are dead?
The Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) prohibited damaging or harming the body of the deceased. He authentically said as narrated by Abu Dawud that, “Breaking the bone of he who is dead is like breaking it when he is alive.”
This shows that the dead are not to be disrespected as the living are not to be disrespected. And that the sanctity of the dead is the same as the sanctity of the living, in fact their sanctity is even more so because they are unable to speak up for themselves and defend their honour and sanctity.
Quite apart from dishonouring the dead, is the issue of what kind of benefit it really gives to those who witness the tragedy and the shocking aftermath. In the majority of people, it is little more than intense traumatic shock and despair, which often leads to desensitization. In fact, in our social media world today where timelines can become so painful for the eyes for so many different reasons, we quickly scroll past anything which remotely looks graphic and thereby miss out on much important news and content that we must be kept up to date on in order to help find real solutions. If we just wish to avoid, or these images become the norm in our minds, we have not enacted changed. We have brought despair and enacted avoidance of the issue for the sake of our hearts and minds.
When the noble companion Humzah (radhyAllahu ‘anhu) was martyred by his enemies, the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) did not allow his family to view the body. He saw no benefit in that. There was nothing to gain except for despair and anger and helplessness on our side, and dishonour and disrespect on the side of the dead. If we could to try to understand this principle when we deal with our daily tragedies – and this is made admittedly very difficult with the refusal of the masses to get involved and help without such shocking photos and videos that emotionally jolt people so severely – then perhaps we will be better off for it and the dead will at least have preserved whatever tiny little sanctity they have left from the catastrophe that we have allowed to happen on our watch.
Spread the news as best as you can. But please, respect the dead.
Please see my thoughts below on changing our attitude on how to bring awareness to tragedy without disrespecting the dead. I wrote it straight after the Newtown massacre.
Let’s analyse our responses to tragedy especially post the unthinkable atrocities in Newtown, Connecticut with the massacre of 27 children and adults.
I decided to write it only after I read a comment which mentioned “their” and “our” children as we collectively mourned. See, there’s no such thing as “their” children. Period. We’re Muslims. We don’t accept the position of “someone else’s children”.
What I do accept though is a basic lack of understanding on how we are given, and how we handle news of tragedy.
As someone who regularly watches AlJazeera and “our” foreign news channels, just forgive me using a massive paintbrush, but in general when some tragedy such as a massacre or killings in the Muslim world becomes news, they tend to focus on the extremity and gory details and graphic shock factor to try and make the story as big as it should be, and to try and make us emotionally connect with the suffering. You will see images of the dead that you’d never get to see in the West, and you see them continuously again, and again, and again. When one reflects upon the loss of these beautiful children such as presented above, you have to ask yourself when was the last time you saw the death of children or indeed anyone presented like that such as in the Syrian uprising or Gaza or Iraq or drone strikes in Pakistan? I can only speak for myself and I would say at least the majority of the time, the only image I can recall from such conflicts are pictures of bloodied children, mutilated children, children’s faces contorted in agony, dead children, etc. Maybe there should be argument that suggests that no pictures of anyone should be shown and that Islamically all of this is reprehensible anyway (meaning nice/bad pics, memorials, montages, evoking of emotions etc) but when the Arab and Eastern news networks once to play the same game as the Western networks with the same style, methodology and look, then why stick to their raw horror, shock approach?
We have to know about this news, and quickly, and in detail too so that we can organise help as quickly and correctly as possible but this general approach is sad on many levels. Firstly, it is truly horrific and psychologically damaging and harmful to see some of these images. Secondly, the Muslims are one family as decreed by God and therefore there should never be a need to oversell the tragedy and the deaths, but of course we usually respond so poorly that we basically ask for this kind of broadcasting decision. Finally, we have become so desensitized to horrible pictures of slain children, or decapitated citizens or whatever, that not only has it lost some meaning but we’ve also unintentionally created this sick culture where the image or the news has to push the boundaries of perversion even more, to the levels of pornographic violence and horror graphics almost, so as to maintain our interest and keep a line of hope and help open for the suffering who are dependent upon us. Of course, living thousands of miles away also doesn’t help the situation when we feel physically and psychologically removed from the crime zone, even though we should be closer to it through our Islamic sensibilities.
This is just so incredibly sad to believe, but it is true.
The Western networks on the other hand generally try to focus on the human side of the issue. They will rarely use very graphic images. Raw emotion is what they expertly extract. They will instead focus on creating a story as per classic film-making principles, and take their time to develop a narrative that we can all relate to as humans. They hit all the right notes and push all the right emotion buttons to make us weep at a story – and most often deservedly so of course – by breaking it down to our level, talking to the parents and making us live their lives and even force our empathy out of us if necessary so that the entire tragedy becomes personal.
It is amazingly effective. That makes it sound like it’s all some kind of cunning plan, which it might well be, but then everyone wants to have a cunning plan for people to empathise with the suffering of others. The Arab networks spend enough billions trying to do the same as well, but don’t do it well enough despite their best efforts.
So the BBCs and the CNNs pull on our heart strings, subtly personalising the incident in a way which has incredible results. It leads to that outpouring of grief over the deaths of those who are not related to us in anyway whatsoever, or us crying when the US President – a man remember with blood on his hands with his Drone Army – cries himself. You couldn’t make it up. But it’s true. Indeed we are all the living proof of that. And it is this incredible skill and success of these networks which leads many people, especially some Muslims, angry and frustrated, to make rather short-sighted and ignorant albeit well-intentioned statements such as, “What about the Palestinians!” and “Why didn’t you cry or scream or Facebook this much when the Syrian children were massacred!” etc.
I want to end in saying that I truly don’t hold networks accountable. In fact, I can’t. I get to first hear most of the crazy depressing news of deaths in the Muslim world from the BBCway before anyone else. It’s only when the BBC goes with a story does it elicit major responses from Muslims, even when the Arab networks et al might be going big on said story for days and days. So how can one blame the likes of the “kuffaar” media?! And even beyond just the news and information, I can say that it has often been when the BBC and other Western networks goes “Western style” and “personal” on some of the Muslim victims in tragedies in the Muslim world, where I have felt even more connected and emotionally invested, than by watching AlJazeera or Geo or al-Arabiyyah talk about it day and night. I’m not ashamed of saying that. That’s what professionals, psychologists, PR folks and media people are trying to do to me, and that’s what they pride themselves on. And good on them. I’m just a consumer like everyone else, who at least can keep his eye on the bigger picture during all tragedy but still has a human heart which can be manipulated (and rightly too) when needed, and thus the word for “heart” in Arabic (qalb) comes from the word to “turn around” and “change”, and that’s why we ask Allah for steadfastness and a well-grounded and solid heart during times where all that we see and consume is turning our heart around like crazy, day and night.
It’s beyond ridiculous to blame the “kuffaar” for our inability or lack of planning in such an area. This video here shows exactly why we shouldn’t be so naive and encapsulates my entire argument above: you have “Western” outlets promoting the murder of these beautiful children by drone-attack in Pakistan in an attempt to evoke the same emotions we did for the Newtown children. The (Muslim) film-maker has also tried to do the same but unfortunately seems to have mostly pictures of the children when they are dead as opposed to happy smiling ones, almost certainly because many Muslims especially from tribal and rural areas aren’t so much in to taking pictures of their young both culturally and financially. I’m not a psychologist but there is a definitive difference in seeing a child in both states. Dead and lifeless almost doesn’t seem real, detached. Faith and family is not enough to depend on when trying to feel the pain of the Ummah for millions of Muslim consumers out there. This is the age of empathy, psychology, presentation. Yet even with these limitations, one can connect far more with this video at a human level and feel the pain, as opposed to the standard fare that one is unfortunately used to.
I conclude to myself that this reality above – after analysing the skill and power of some news networks – should never lead us to lose the ability to grieve at the human level. That is one of our most beautiful and precious qualities and must be protected at all times as displayed by the Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be peace) numerous times. It should instead lead us to rethink our strategies on how to make current even bigger tragedies in places far away, that little bit more personal and real so as to elicit in us the right amount of empathy and action that would allow justice and peace to reach the suffering, without ever having to quota, ration or restrict our grief and humanity in a complete and undivided fashion at any other time in any other place.
Allāhumma thabbit qulūbanā ‘alā dīnika yā Rabb.