The other day a young Muslim woman vented to me about all the Muslims she saw online talking about a new Netflix series entitled The Messiah. “I’m not going to watch that crap,” she said. “Stuff like that just pisses me off.”
I myself hadn’t seen it or heard about it before that moment, so I couldn’t offer her my own opinion on the show. But I did let her know that she was definitely correct in prioritizing her spiritual health over “being in the know.” I told her that what we called “avoiding keeping your head in the sand” too often was used as a justification to expose our eyes, ears, and hearts to what we know will be a testimony against us on the Day of Judgment—or at the very least could potentially harm our spiritual health in this world.
Nevertheless, I told her that outside of clear obligations and prohibitions, I generally withheld myself from expressing opinions on what other Muslims should or should not be doing, especially when it came to modern-day entertainment. This was because I truly believed that this issue wasn’t as simple as either “Just don’t watch any of it, period!” or “We need to watch all these shows to know what’s out there!”
In my view, what was more urgent was incorporating the daily practice of spiritual self-honesty and accountability into every moment of our lives, instead of running from ourselves and our personal realities through claims of some elusive “greater good.”
So if you’ve reached a point in your spiritual life where you find yourself conflicted over whether or not to watch a certain TV series or movie, here are ten points of reflection to keep in mind:
(1) Choose Spiritual Honesty Over Self-Deception
In making a spiritually honest decision on whether or not to watch a particular TV series or movie, it is important that we keep in mind that our primary responsibility on this earth is to nourish our spiritual health, not to corrupt it. And a crucial part of this nourishment is protecting our senses (which are loaned to us by Allah) from any definite harm.
Naturally, when it comes to TV and movies, this protection of the eyes, ears, and heart goes far beyond merely turning our heads away from nudity and sexual imagery or avoiding shows with explicit sexual content. It further extends to any content in which people are being called away from the path of spiritual guidance.
In the Qur’an, Allah says what has been translated to mean, “And it has already been revealed to you in the Book that when you hear the Verses of Allah being denied and mocked at, then sit not with them, until they engage in a talk other than that; [but if you stayed with them] certainly, in that case you would be like them…” (An-Nisaa, 4:140).
Therefore, it is not correct for a person with emaan (true faith) in their hearts to remain in these environments, even for social reasons, let alone for voluntary entertainment in the privacy of our homes.
No matter how beneficial it is for some Muslims to watch certain shows and then analyze them from an Islamic perspective, this sort of conscious “good intention” could very easily be a path of ghuroor—spiritual self-deception—for our souls. And when it comes to ghuroor, not even the sincerest “religious” Muslim, spiritual teacher, or scholar is safe from it.
(2) You Are What You Consume
“But I’m watching it to point out what’s wrong!” we say, or “I’m trying to better understand the world we live in!” While these praiseworthy intentions certainly have their place from time to time in today’s society, this general social reality should not distract us from our personal spiritual reality. This is where we get so caught up in our ability to point out the “good” and “bad” we see in the TV and movies we watch, that we fail to perceive what is actually happening to our souls while we watch (despite our good intentions), hence this reminder to myself:
Don’t misunderstand. The mind and heart do not speak the same language. This is very important to remember during this time, when we consume popular television and movies like we consume water and food.
Think of it like this: The mind is like a camera or recording device, and the heart is like the veins and the human stomach. While a camera or recording allows you to playback things and analyze them as good or bad and right or wrong while being largely untouched by the harm or wrong you see, the veins and the stomach can only be nourished by what you actually feed them.
There is no other possibility.
The reason we can watch, read, and listen to sinful content on a daily basis is that the spiritual diseases of our hearts make us assume that our rational “playback” conclusion represents what our heart really believes. But you are nourished only by what you actually eat—not by what you know you should. And you certainly are not nourished by your “perfect analysis” of the bad contents of what you just ate.
Put simply, if you consume what is bad or toxic for you, you run the risk of getting sick or putting your life in danger. This is indisputable scientific reality, and it is indisputable spiritual reality as well. Therefore, when it comes to the health and sickness of your body, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a celebrated doctor or nutritionist, or a self-proclaimed “junk food junkie.” If you eat what’s harmful for you, then that food will harm you—and no amount of “healthy food knowledge” will protect your veins or stomach from suffering the results of what you actually put in them.
In other words, knowledge about healthy food only benefits you if you actually eat the healthy food itself—not if you just mentally process it, or talk about it.
The same reality exists for spiritual knowledge and health.
Yes, what you eat before or after a bad or toxic meal will definitely determine how sick you get, or your ability to detox faster. But the toxins are still there if you’re consuming them.
(3) You Don’t Help the Sick By Getting Sick
Just as it makes no sense to stay in a toxic or abusive relationship for the “noble purpose” of educating others about toxic and abusive relationships, it makes no sense to consciously consume what will make you sick for the “noble purpose” of helping those who are already sick.
As Allah aptly points out in the ayah mentioned above, when we make a conscious decision to remain in or place ourselves in environments where divine teachings are being denied, disparaged, or mocked by those who are committed to harming their souls, “…in that case you would be like them…” (4:140).
When we read spiritual warnings like these, we often assume that Allah is speaking only of an unseen spiritual reality, and is only giving us a strong reprimand. But in many cases, He is also speaking of something quite literal and observable in our actual lives: We do indeed become what we consume (i.e. if we eat bad food, we suffer bad health), and we are indeed on the path of those in our closes social circles and intimate environments—literally.
In realizing this, just imagine what is happening to us when we develop an intimate, close relationship with people on the TV or movie screen, such that we set aside “quality time” each day to spend with these beloved companions.
We become the sickness we consume.
Consequently, our thoughts, convictions, emotional sensitivities, and even our moral compasses mirror the exact pattern of what is displayed to us in our beloved TV programs and movies.
This is no coincidence.
In an article published in ScientificAmerican.com entitled “Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor,” authors Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said:
“Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the struggle for survival is how easily organisms can be harmed by that which they desire. The trout is caught by the fisherman’s lure, the mouse by cheese. But at least those creatures have the excuse that bait and cheese look like sustenance. Humans seldom have that consolation. The temptations that can disrupt their lives are often pure indulgences…” (February 23, 2002 via researchgate.net).
(4) Your Mind Is Not Your Heart
In seeking to protect our hearts and souls from harm, it is crucial that we remember this: When continuously watching whatever we like when it is labeled “entertainment,” the mistake we make is assuming that just because our minds are processing “wrong” that our hearts are processing “wrong” too. This is simply not the case.
As we know very well with sins like fornication, adultery, and drinking alcohol, a person can indulge in these sins daily while the mind knows quite clearly that it is wrong. Meanwhile, the heart becomes content in sin until the person has no real desire to repent.
This is because the mind is not the heart, and they do not speak the same language. The mind processes theoretical truth, while the heart processes actual reality—i.e. the truth you actually live.
Yes, there are times that the mind and heart do in fact speak the same language. However, that’s only after we consistently expose ourselves to sin until even our minds can no longer process right and wrong correctly.
Or it’s only after we consistently expose ourselves to what is pleasing to our Lord until both our minds and hearts recognize the need to stay away from sin at all times, whether we’re watching it on a TV or movie screen, or committing it directly with our own limbs.
(5) Ask Allah First
Due to the very real harms that exist in modern-day entertainment, till today, it is a practice in my home to make du’aa before watching or reading anything entertaining, such that we ask Allah to protect us from any harm and allow us to benefit from any good. And if we have any deep concerns about the greater harm or good in something, we pray Istikhaarah before deciding to read or watch it.
I’ve personally found this practice very helpful in inspiring more self-honesty in myself, and in avoiding watching things that I really don’t need to but have managed to convince myself that I’m getting something beneficial out of.
Consequently, today, the isolated argument that “it can help with da’wah” is just not good enough for me. I know this is often just one way that we modern-day Muslims run from our spiritual responsibilities (as found in the Qur’an and prophetic teachings) by fabricating our own. In this mentality of self-justification, we relax in indulging in any entertainment we like, so long as we intend to teach others some beneficial lesson about it later.
While there are certainly times when watching something for the purpose of da’wah is indeed necessary or beneficial, this is an exceptionally rare occurrence, not a regular practice.
Furthermore, given the obviously toxic nature of modern-day entertainment in both its explicit and implicit programming, this go-to argument is about as logical as a mental health professional intentionally entering a toxic or abusive relationship for the “honorable purpose” of educating others about the dynamics of a toxic or abusive relationship.
There is simply no amount of “greater good” that could ever come from intentionally harming oneself in this way.
(6) Pay Attention To What It’s Doing To Your Heart
Because the effects of entertainment consumption are so subtle and hidden, it’s not possible to detect every aspect of how this pastime is affecting us specifically. However, in everything that harms or benefits our souls, Allah gives us signs. In the ayah mentioned above, He already informed us that we become the environments that we voluntarily expose ourselves to.
One sign of this reality affecting on own our lives directly is when we find ourselves completely relaxed and content while watching a TV series or movie, yet we rush through our prayers, pray with very little concentration, or even regularly miss or delay prayers. This is undoubtedly a sign that our hearts are pleased with the company of popular entertainment (despite being consistently invited to sin and misguidance), yet we are unsettled and discontent in the company of our Rabb (despite being consistently invited to His forgiveness and mercy).
This is no small matter, and it’s a sign that we should not take lightly.
Another sign that is particularly telling is how our hearts process what we hear or read from Qur’an. When our hearts have absorbed the subliminal programming of modern-day media and entertainment, we tend to be most concerned with how disbelievers or misguided Muslims would misinterpret, misunderstand, or misuse certain ayaat—instead of being most concerned with how well our own lives reflect the true guidance of Qur’an.
In this mindset, we see ourselves as sort of PR representatives for Islam, instead of struggling souls in need of Islam. Therefore, our primary interaction with Qur’an is for the “noble purpose” of dispelling harmful misconceptions that we feel will tarnish the “true image of Islam.” Thus, clarifying misunderstandings becomes our spiritual focus instead of striving to personally benefit from our Creator’s soul-nourishing teachings.
“How are we going to explain such-and-such verse to non-Muslims?” is a question at the center of a heart that is disconnected from Qur’an as a lived experience, but is determined to defend it for the sake of da’wah and protecting the “image of Islam.”
This is one direct result of our minds and hearts absorbing the emotional sensitivities of disbelievers via modern-day entertainment, until we begin to see the Qur’an as a consistently problematic Book that needs constant explaining, defending, and even reinterpretation. This is all for the “urgent” purpose of making sure no one misunderstands it.
(7) Are You Viewing the Qur’an As Problematic?
When we sincerely interact with the Qur’an as we should, then we become aware that making sure that no one misunderstands Qur’an is a futile endeavor. This is because Allah Himself has already told us that there will always be people who not only misunderstand His teachings, but who will also go astray after hearing them. This is primarily due to the spiritual sicknesses in their hearts and their personal commitment to evil and misguidance.
Allah says what has been translated to mean, “(They say) ‘What does Allah mean by this parable?’ By it He causes some to stray, and some He leads to the right path. But He causes not to stray, except those who are faasiqoon (rebellious and disobedient)” (Al-Baqarah, 2:26).
Therefore, our job is to merely share the message of Qur’an in a clear way that reaches a person’s heart, bi’idhnillaah, and then to trust that Allah will guide those who are sincere. Regarding those whose hearts are intent on misguidance and seeing the worst in their Creator’s Words, there is absolutely nothing we can do for them.
In striving to teach our own hearts this, we need to realize that the Qur’an doesn’t need our help. We need its help.
Yes, we should definitely teach others the truth about Islam and the Qur’anic teachings, especially when the media is spreading false information. However, our primary focus should be on living the divine teachings in our own lives, instead of stressing over all the “problematic” messages that a disbeliever (or corrupt Muslim) could take from them.
In the beginning of Al-Baqarah, Allah tells us that His Book is a source of guidance to the muttaqoon (people of taqwaa). Therefore, we should strive to be amongst these people whose very lives are defined by sincere consciousness of their Creator, as we prepare to meet Him.
As we strive to instill this taqwaa in our hearts, we should not be treating our Creator’s merciful Message like it’s a consistent problem that needs our help, apologetics, or reinterpretation. When we find our hearts fixated on dispelling “problematic” interpretations of Qur’an for the sake of satisfying disbelievers, this is often a sign that we are consuming far more modern-day media and entertainment than is healthy for our hearts and souls.
(8) Islam Doesn’t Need You, You Need Islam
Here are some reminders I wrote to myself in my journal to help me stay away from self-deception in consuming modern-day entertainment:
Protecting your soul from harm is more important than protecting Islam from a bad “image.” So don’t neglect yourself in your zeal to refute the media’s anti-Islam propaganda. Islam is guaranteed success. It is Allah’s religion after all. The question is, will you be part of this success? So focus on that.
• • •
Be careful what you feed your eyes and ears. They feed your mind, and your mind feeds your heart, and your heart feeds you…and gives you life.
• • •
There are some choices that come with a hefty cost. If you are wise, you accept that you’ll have to pay the fee—or you choose another path.
• • •
We remove negative and toxic people from our lives to protect our emotional health, yet we voluntarily imbibe negative and toxic messages about our faith from the television. Turn it off. Your mental and spiritual health need protection too. You become what you consume most. So consume what rejuvenates you, not what frustrates and angers you. Negative media is fueled by viewership. Give it one less viewer. Take care of yourself.
(9) Fight Programming with Programming
In an earlier blog I wrote entitled “Everybody’s Preaching Something, Don’t Be Naive,” I offer this closing reflection to readers regarding their interaction with modern-day entertainment:
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…
However, 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.
(10) Program Salaah and Qur’an Into Your Life
In incorporating the benefits of repetition and repeated exposure to combat media toxins, 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. This practice in itself can help us overcome our sins, whether in consuming haraam entertainment or in doing haraam directly. Allah says what has been translated to mean, “Verily, the prayer (Salaah) keeps one from the great sins and evil deeds…” (Al-Ankaboot, 29:45)
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. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The worst type of thief is the one who steals from his prayer.” The Companions asked, “O Messenger of Allah, how does one steal from his prayers?” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) responded, “He does not complete his rukoo’ (bowing), nor his sujood (prostration)” (Ahmad, al-Tabarani, Ibn al–Khuzaymah, and al-Hakim).
We should also make an effort to pay attention to the meaning of what we are saying instead of treating the words and supplications like meaningless rituals. This allows us to benefit from our prayer and subsequently benefit from any other good deeds we do, as there are no good deeds for the one whose prayer is not sound.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The first matter that the slave will be brought to account for on the Day of Judgment is the Prayer. If it is sound, then the rest of his deeds will be sound. And if it is corrupt, then the rest of his deeds will be corrupt” (al-Tabarani, Sahih al-Jami).
Regarding Qur’an, Allah says what has been translated to mean, “Do they not then think deeply on the Qur’an, or are their hearts locked up?” (Muhammad, 47:24).
In seeking to implement this spiritual contemplation of Qur’an into our practical daily lives, I offer 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.
O Allah! We ask You to increase us in beneficial knowledge and understanding. And we beg You to 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 You in this world and in the Hereafter.
And O Allah! We beg You to purify our minds and hearts such that with every moment in our day, we are consciously and sincerely preparing to meet You—for surely, every breath we’re taking and every moment that passes 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.
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