black and white photo of hands raised in praise in church

Everybody’s Preaching Something, Don’t Be Naive

Loss has a way of bringing so many things to light. This is what I find myself pondering as I recall so much of what I learned from my father, who passed away recently (may Allah have mercy on him).

When I was growing up, my father didn’t allow my siblings or me to watch television and movies simply as a pastime, and we weren’t allowed to read just any book or to listen to just any music. My father and mother, who were raised Christian and converted to Islam the year I was born, taught us to look at everything from the perspective of deep understanding and comprehending the benefit and harm it could bring to us. They also taught us to reflect on how circumstances could have transpired differently from what we were seeing on the television screen or reading in a book. Most importantly, they taught us to consistently reflect on our own spiritual purpose in everything we did. I recall being as young as four years old when I learned many of these lessons of self-reflection and spiritual betterment.

On the rare occasion that my parents allowed any of us to sit down in front of the television, we were required to take notes on what we were watching and then submit a report afterwards. In our report, we had to list the good and bad of we saw, and then make suggestions on how things could have been handled better.

Looking back, I can appreciate the significance of what we were being taught through this exercise. However, at the time, I honestly found it irritating and unnecessary. I just wanted to relax and enjoy the television show or movie, like “normal families” did.

Today, as a mother and striving believer, I understand the profound wisdom that my father and mother were passing on. By never allowing us to just passively accept what someone was teaching us or presenting to us—even if it was in the name of “harmless” fun and entertainment—I learned a deeper meaning of something my father would say often: “There is no vacation for the Muslim.”

By this, he didn’t mean that a Muslim should never rest, travel, or have fun. He meant that no matter what worldly activity you are involved in, if you are truly someone who submits to God (i.e. you are truly Muslim), then your internal spiritual consciousness is never “on vacation”—even during moments of relaxation, enjoyment, and entertainment.

This Isn’t About Love, It’s About Selling Ideas

“You think these people are paying a million dollars for a thirty-second Super Bowl commercial because they love you?” I recall my father saying to us once. “No,” he said with emphasis. “They’re selling you something, and the question you need to ask yourself is what it is, and why they’re willing to spend so much money for just thirty seconds of your time.”

On many an occasion, my father would let us know in no uncertainty of terms that television ads and other forms of entertainment were just as much about selling you ideas and beliefs as they were about selling you cars, food, beer, and other consumer products. “And God-consciousness is not part of what they’re selling,” he’d say.

In my own studies in psychology, propaganda, and the science of advertisement, I learned that even the experts in these fields admit that there are foundational belief systems that guide all entertainment, advertisements, and promotional campaigns. “Sex sells” is a rather popular ideology in these industries, but it is not the only one.

These experts say that every image that is placed in front of you, as well as every sound that you hear, is presented to you in a very specific way, for a very specific purpose, and with the goal of having a very specific effect on your mind and heart, specifically your emotions and subconscious.

Regarding this deliberateness behind the presentation of media content, political scientist, Andrew Hacker, said, “Every time a message seems to grab us, and we think, ‘I just might try it,’ we are at the nexus of choice and persuasion that is advertising.” Marketing expert and motivational speaker, Marcus Sheridan, said, “Great content is the best sales tool in the world.” Author and business executive, Seth Godin, said, “Facts are irrelevant. What matters is what the consumer believes” (itsaugust.com, 2018).

In other words, in advertising, television production, and filmmaking, nothing is trivial. Every image and sound is planned out to the millisecond, and is guided by very specific goals and ideologies—and truth is not necessarily part of the equation.

Nothing Is Done Without Intent

When it comes to entertainment, broadcasting, and even formal education, here is something that we need to understand very well if we have even minimal spiritual sincerity and intelligence: Every single television program, movie, and advertisement, as well as every book and magazine you find in a curriculum or on a shelf, has a very specific purpose for why it is in front of you, especially if you find it consistently celebrated, praised, and awarded.

No, this reality doesn’t necessarily mean that all television, media, and books are aimed at pushing you to do something evil or immoral. In fact, there are several beneficial messages and goals in many of them. Rather, understanding the reality of definite intent simply means we need to be aware that everything we encounter in this world began with a very specific intention. Sometimes that intention is sincere and good, and sometimes it is not.

Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Surely, all actions are driven by intentions; and, verily, every person shall have what he intended” (Bukhari and Muslim).

As we come to understand the reality of intention, we also need to understand that intention can be conscious or unconscious. Just because a person is not aware of his or her intention behind doing something doesn’t mean that the intent is not there. In fact, as human beings, we can imagine that we intend something good whereas the truth of what is happening is the exact opposite. This is a concept that Allah addresses over and over in the Qur’an.

For example, Allah says what has been translated to mean, “And when it is said to them, ‘Make not mischief on the earth,’ they say, ‘We are only peacemakers.’ Verily, they are the ones who make mischief but they perceive not” (Al-Baqarah, 2:11-12).

He also says, “Say, ‘Shall We tell you the greatest losers with respect to [their] deeds? Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life while they thought they were acquiring good by their work…” (Al-Kahf, 18: 103-104).

Even the grave sin of shirk (attributing divinity to other than Allah) can be unknown to us, even as it stems from our own hearts. This is especially the case when it is hidden shirk in the form of insincerity, which has been described as more hidden than a black ant crawling on a black rock on a moonless night. In one hadith, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) advises us, “O people, save yourselves from shirk, for it is more inconspicuous than the creeping of the ant.” Someone whom Allah willed [to speak] asked, “How do we save ourselves from it while it is more inconspicuous than the creeping of the ant, O Messenger of Allah?” He (peace and blessings be upon him) then said, “Say, ‘O Allah we seek refuge in You from associating anything with You knowingly, and we seek Your forgiveness for what we do unknowingly’” (Musnad Ahmad, 4/403; Musnad Abi Shaybah, 6/70; Musnad Abi Ya’la, 1/60 and others. Graded saheeh by Al-Albaani in ‘Saheeh al-Jaami’, 3/233, #2876).

Given these divine and prophetic teachings, it is inconceivable that any of us could deny the reality of both the conscious and unconscious motivations that are present in every human heart, and that drive every human action.

The Deliberate Intent Behind Much Entertainment

Just this past June, there was an article published on msn.com entitled, “Celebrate LGBT Pride Month With 14 Moving TV Moments and Milestones.” In the article, the author highlighted quotes and scenes from popular television shows whose plots and objectives aligned with the celebration of not only living a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender lifestyle, but also living it “proudly.”

What is so profound about this article is not only the highlighting of these entertaining moments, but also the description of these scenes as being “moving.” In other words, the author is pointing out how these portions of the television script were written for the expressed purpose of evoking an emotional reaction in the heart—and carrying out a very specific pro-LGBT intent.

Though many of us like to believe that entertainment is just that—purely entertainment— articles such as this force us to face the reality that millions upon millions of dollars are not being spent on entertainment for the sole purpose of giving us an enjoyable “Netflix and chill” night with our loved ones. Rather, we are being called to very specific ideas and beliefs.

In this very deliberate purpose of most television and movies, it is no accident that you will rarely if ever find major news outlets or entertaining shows or films highlighting or producing “moving” scenes that inspire viewers to submit to their spiritual purpose on earth, or to live by the moral code that God has outlined for us in His revelation.

In fact, our subconscious programming from modern media has been so effective that even if we do happen upon any form of entertainment that is spiritually “moving,” you will find the vast majority of people—even professed believers in God amongst Muslims, Christians, and Jews—calling it “judgmental” and “preachy” instead of a labeling it as a celebration of spiritual pride, or a “moving” display of a spiritual lifestyle.

One look at all the negative criticism that the writer and producer Tyler Perry gets for his Christian-centered entertainment makes this point painfully obvious. It’s as if the vast majority of people can only enjoy a television show, book, or movie if they are being called away from morality instead of toward it. What we don’t realize is that, either way (i.e. whether the entertainment is secular or religious), we are being called to something.

All actions have intentions behind them. Therefore, every television show, book, or movie has been written for a very specific purpose. The question is merely what that purpose is, not whether or not a purpose or message exists in it at all.

‘We Want Entertainment, Not Religious Sermons!’

“If you want to send a message,” a Muslim filmmaker told me once, “then use Western Union.” In other words, she was saying never use a medium of entertainment for the purpose of teaching a moral lesson, advocating a certain lifestyle, or sharing the spirituality of Islam. This was her advice to me after reading my novel If I Should Speak and offering her own services in turning the book into a feature film. She felt the book would make a really good movie if I removed all the spiritual lessons from it—while I felt that there would be no book or story left at all if spirituality was removed.

As heartbreaking as the filmmaker’s perspective was, it was not the first time I’d heard objections to using the creative field to share a spiritual perspective. In fact, the most common criticism I hear of my novels is that there is too much spirituality in them. These readers (who are mostly Muslim) feel that sharing a spiritual message has no place in entertainment, especially if a very obvious moral or religious message is involved.

“I’m done with reading Umm Zakiyyah’s books,” one woman said in a post online. “She’s too preachy. It’s like she can’t write a single story without shoving Islam down our throats.”

Another woman remarked in a public review of my novel His Other Wife, “I feel like she put that character in the book for her own homophobic agenda.”

Another reader commented in a book discussion, “Oh, are we all supposed to be okay with polygamy now? Is that her point? Novels aren’t for teaching religion. They’re for enjoyment and entertainment. I wish someone would tell Umm Zakiyyah that.”

These are just a glimpse of the type of comments and public reviews—mostly from Muslim readers—that I come across on a regular basis. And these types of reactions are not limited to only my creative work. They are aimed at any person who uses creative writing or modern media to share a spiritual message that is rooted in living a life of submission to God.

Ironically, these types of negative reactions are largely absent from people’s reviews of popular television shows, movies, and books that are quite unapologetic in their anti-God and anti-morality “preaching.” In these programs, films, and literature, the anti-God preachy messages are cloaked in wanton displays of pseudo-porn, full nudity, and open celebration of fornication, adultery, and homosexuality—complete with follow up articles and awards that celebrate sinful lifestyles and call us to be proud of dedicating our lives to disobeying our Creator.

Yet somehow we manage to view only the writers and filmmakers who are reminding us of our spiritual purpose on earth as “judgmental” and “preachy.” Meanwhile, we genuinely imagine that Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and satellite TV providers want nothing more than for us to relax and enjoy “pure” entertainment.

Judging the Judgmental, Preaching Against the Preachy

None of us like judgmental people, I wrote in my personal journal once. But we are all, to a certain extent, judgmental people. After all, one must be judgmental to even judge others as judgmental.

I wrote this reflection not to trivialize the importance of being tactful and compassionate when we are sharing beneficial messages to others, but to inspire us to self-reflect on the reality that passing judgment is largely unavoidable. In fact, passing judgment is such a natural human tendency that to even conclude that someone else is “judgmental,” we must first pass judgment on them ourselves.

No, this does not that mean that it’s okay to freely pass judgment on others and say whatever comes to our minds, with no care or concern for compassion and empathy. However, it does mean that when we observe others’ speech and actions, it is more about how we process and express what we “judge,” as opposed to never having any feelings, judgments, or reactions to them.

A similar concept exists in “preaching” about something. The reality is that every human being has deep-seated beliefs that they share with others. This sharing might be in the hopes of making the world kinder, more tolerant, more spiritual, more accepting of “diversity,” more understanding of others’ lifestyles, and so on. Whatever the purpose, all sharing that is aimed at influencing someone’s thoughts, actions, or beliefs is by definition “preaching.” Thus, the question should never be whether or not someone is “preaching” to us. It is what they are preaching about—and how they go about that preaching.

Preaching can be subtle, or preaching can be apparent. It can be in the form of entertaining television and movies, or “moving” books and magazine articles—or any host of advertisements and other media. But the preaching is happening nonetheless.

Their Goal Is To Take You Away from Allah

While the preaching in some entertainment is simply about spreading love, empathy, and understanding in the world, other preaching involves a deliberate attempt to make others disbelieve in God and live a life that will harm their souls. This is especially the case when these people have money, power, and a position of dominance over those who believe in God and the Hereafter.

Allah says what has been translated to mean, “If they gain dominance over you, they would behave to you as enemies and extend against you their hands and their tongues with evil, and they wish you would disbelieve” (Al-Mumtahanah, 60:2).

Even as these people’s own words and actions—on and off-screen—testify to this fact, we still have so many Muslims imagining that there is absolutely no negative intent behind most entertainment. Thus, it is only their fellow brothers and sisters in faith whom they view as “judgmental” and “preachy.” Meanwhile, Muslim writers and artists are merely doing with the message of Islam what the disbelievers are doing with the message of anti-Islam. Yet so many of us remain unaware of the deliberate anti-God and anti-morality programming that is happening daily in so much of what we read, watch, and listen to.

What is ironic is that our quick and automatic labeling of believers as “judgmental” and “preachy” and our quick and automatic support of obviously immoral television, films, and books is a clear testimony that the deliberate anti-Islam programming is actually working. Consequently, for so many of us, it is only the television, movies, and books of disbelievers that we can relax and enjoy without passing negative judgment. In this, our hearts are filled with love and admiration of those who oppose our faith, a love that we are not even conscious of.

Allah says what has been translated to mean, “Here you are loving them, but they do not love you…” (Ali ‘Imraan, 3:119).

But do we believe what Allah is teaching us in His book? Or are we too busy enjoying the “innocent” books and entertainment of the disbelievers to have any time to listen to such a “preachy” message?

Fight Programming with Programming

The reality is that for most of us, we are not intentionally consuming sinful entertainment for the conscious intention of supporting un-Islamic messages. Many of us are simply stressed out due to our personal struggles and are hurting emotionally.  Thus, we turn to entertaining television, movies, and books to escape the painful realities of life.

The unintended side effect of our intentional escapism, however, is that we often do not wish to deal with weighty issues such as our souls and spiritual realities in the same context as entertainment and “taking a break from life.” Unfortunately, this often means that we are consistently exposing ourselves to subtle spiritual programming that calls us away from our souls, instead of exposing ourselves to more obvious spiritual programming that calls us to remember our souls.

Repetition and repeated exposure to anything ultimately affects the state of the human soul, and this spiritual alteration happens whether we are aware of it or not. This is what popular television, movies, and books achieve in their ostensibly “relaxing” entertainment that programs our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs without us consciously perceiving the spiritual changes we are undergoing.

So what’s the solution? We need to fight this spiritually harmful programming with spiritually nourishing programming of our own. In other words, we need to use repetition and repeated exposure in a way that helps us instead of harms us. How?

We can begin with Salaah and Qur’an. In this, we make a conscious effort to establish the five prayers every day on time, without exception. Additionally, we should make a conscious effort to be more focused in our prayers and spend more time in rukoo’ and sujood instead of rushing through the movements. We should make an effort to pay attention to the meaning of what we are saying instead of treating the words and supplications like a meaningless ritual.

Regarding Qur’an, I’ll share this advice from my personal journal:

Read Qur’an every day, even if only for a few minutes, even if you don’t feel like it, and even if your heart feels empty or distant from Allah.

Just as your body benefits from physical cleansing even when you’re not fully “enjoying” the bath, your heart and soul benefit from spiritual cleansing even when you’re unable to taste the sweetness of emaan. Yes, a bath you enjoy refreshes you far beyond merely cleansing the skin, and a spiritual practice you enjoy makes your heart come alive far beyond merely earning blessings for uttering divine words.

But with or without enjoyment, your body needs daily cleansing—and with or without “feeling faith”, your soul needs daily purification. So in addition to praying your five daily prayers, read Qur’an each day, dear soul, even if only a few lines or for only a short time. Your heart might not feel the purification happening within you during prayer and reading Qur’an, but it is happening nonetheless.

Use this as an opportunity to self-reflect and clear your mind and heart, bi’idhnillaah, sincerely interacting with Qur’an. Do this by taking time to think on the meaning and personal implication and lesson of each ayah in your life. (If you can’t read in Arabic, listen to Qur’anic recitation and read along in English or your native language).

Here are some ways to sincerely, from your heart, interact with each ayah you read:

If you come across an ayah discussing those with whom Allah is pleased, supplicate to Him and ask to be amongst them. If you come across an ayah discussing right guidance, ask to be amongst the rightly guided. If you come across an ayah discussing those who are disobedient or oppressive, ask for protection from being amongst them (as the oppressor or the oppressed). If you come across an ayah discussing Allah’s forgiveness and mercy, ask Allah for forgiveness and mercy for yourself. If you come across an ayah discussing Paradise, ask to be admitted amongst the companions of Paradise. If you come across an ayah discussing Hellfire, ask for Allah’s protection from it.

If you come across an ayah that you do not understand or incites confusion, ask Allah to increase you in beneficial knowledge and understanding.

May Allah guide us and forgive us and allow us to make the necessary changes in our spiritual and personal lives such that we draw closer to Him in this world and in the Hereafter. This, so that we are prepared to meet our Creator at any time, as every breath we take is a countdown to this Meeting.

Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.

Want to find or improve your writing voice?Join UZ University to learn how, so you too can share inspirational stories with the world: UZuniversity.com

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