“A Harvard study reveals that eating potatoes before 7 am in the morning increases the chances of brain ulcer by 12%.”
Statements like these give one a momentary scare, do they not? Should I stop eating potatoes? Should I go to my doctor and demand an MRI to check if I’ve got the ulcer, since I’m a french-fry addict?
Now imagine if that momentary scare gets out of control. You start feeling queasy whenever you look at potatoes. Or even if you don’t feel queasy, you still stop buying potato chips, just out of precaution, you know.
And now imagine this on a social level. Your example has scared others. Many people in your community have also stopped buying potato chips, just out of precaution.
And now think of it on an economic level. Potato chips companies are all running at a loss. One or two small ones have stopped paying salaries to their employees. People are losing jobs. And sales of other snack companies, such as Carrot Crunchies and Peanut Pinkies are booming.
And it all started with your personal decision to boycott potatoes. Just out of precaution.
Why is Alarmism so Popular?
There’s no denying it. we get a kick out of telling others that the price of gold is going to skyrocket in the next five years, so you better buy wedding jewellery for your girl (10 years old) from now.
Why? Well, perhaps because we feel good about ourselves for being better informed than others, more conscious of the world, conscientious, and having the power to make others feel nervous. “People with a delusion of grandeur,” says Dr Grohol on PsychCentral, “often have the conviction of having some great but unrecognised talent or insight. They may also believe they have made some important discovery that others don’t understand or appreciate.”
Another reason for our love of alarmism is explained by Dr Albert Ellis, one of the most influential psychologists in history. He calls it catastrophizing, “a human tendency to blow situations out of proportion, or to turn minor threats into calamities.” (JKnaus 70)
Islam’s Take on Alarmism
O you who have believed, if there comes to you a corrupt person with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful. [Sûrat Al-Ḥujurât, 49:6]
“What’s a corrupt person?” asks Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan, founder of Bayyinah Institute, rhetorically.
A corrupt person is one who the moment he hears something, he hastens to passes it along. (See Bukhâri, hadith no. 5975)
He further says in explanation to the âyah, “You might end up saying something that will really hurt someone. For you it’s casual conversation over chay (tea), but for somebody else it just destroyed their reputation.”
This destroying of reputation isn’t only harmful on an individual level. Believing unfounded rumors can harm communities, companies, industries and societies.
Umar said, “Beware of fitna, for a word at the time of fitna could be as devastating as the sword.”
Prophet Muhammad said, It is enough of a lie for a man to narrate everything he hears. [Muslim]
He also said, There will be in the end of time charlatan liars coming to you with narrations that neither you nor your fathers have heard, so beware of them lest they misguide you and cause you tribulation. [Muslim]
Imam Al-Nawawi explains how narrating everything amounts to lying. He says that whatever a man hears contains both truth and lies; so, if he narrates everything, then he is lying in narrating that which hasn’t happened. The definition of “lying” (kadhib) here means “Narrating about something that goes against what it actually is,” even if he doesn’t intend to lie.
Effects of Alarmism
Psychological and Spiritual Effects
Can you imagine living in a world where every other day you find out that something you love to eat, drink or use is ḥarâm? You are browsing your Facebook and suddenly you find out that your most favorite talcum powder contains powder made of pig’s bone. Of course it gives you a useless scare; you spend some precious hours browsing about it and verifying its truth or falsehood, and, not finding any useful information, throw your expensive powder into the garbage bin, and spend some money and more time into buying an alternative which you don’t like half as much.
Throughout this whole episode, you have suffered from needless anxiety. And you’d have suffered even more if you had decided to use your supposedly ḥarâm talcum powder anyway. Every time you’d use it, you’d feel a pang of guilt. And all because of a Facebook feed.
The other psychological problem which alarmism can exacerbate is narcissism. As we have already discussed, the feeling of having superior knowledge or greater awareness feeds one’s sense of grandeur and arrogance, a big threat to our spiritual health. In a qudsi ḥadîth, the Prophet paraphrases Allah:
Pride is my cloak and majesty is my lower garment, and I shall throw him who vie with me regarding one of them into Hell. (Abû Dâwûd)
Another spiritual pitfall alarmism drives us into is lying, as discussed in the ḥadîths above.
I was sitting at lunch in a party with some fellow sisters. They served a certain company’s cola in our drink, and someone said, “Oh, but they put alcohol in it.” I said, “Oh, really?” and after some time took a sip. The stares I received in response made me extremely uncomfortable, and probably lowered my esteem somewhat in the eyes of others.
Never mind its effects in such small-scale casual interactions, alarmism can have significant effects on society. A certain noodles company in my country had to shut off for some time solely because of rumors that its products contained harmful chemicals. So the lovely noodles packages disappeared from supermarket shelves and were replaced by various heretofore unknown products, until recently. You might have come across similar cases. Such scares disrupt economy on a large scale, scares the populace uselessly.
Last but not lease, false alarms divert people’s attention from more pressing problems and real threats to society.
How to Deal with Alarmism
The best way to deal with false alarms and scaremongering is to follow the simple one-word injunction in the Quran:
O you who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with information, investigate… [Sûrat Al-Ḥujurât, 49:6]
Here are some tips that may help your investigation:
(1) Some questions to ask:
Who is saying it?
Where did they get it from? What is the source of their data?
What is the proof that the data is authentic?
Was the experiment unbiased and approved by a trustworthy authority?
If the answers are vague, such as “I read it on the internet” or “so and so wrote an article on it”, then perhaps it’s best to not waste one’s precious time and mental energy on them.
(2) Watch out for logical fallacies in the argument, such as:
- Quoting isolated cases or personal experience: “My aunt’s cousin used this face cream and it burnt her skin right off.”
- Assuming a correlation to be causal. For example: “Every time you eat at Pekan’s pizza.”
- “Everyone says so.”
- Appeal to emotion: “How can you buy products of a company that finances the torture on innocent people?”
(3) If the data cited are authentic in themselves, next see how relevant they are to the argument. For example, one person argued that there have been experiments done to show that you can use a certain cola to wash toilets, thus you shouldn’t drink that cola. The data is authentic, but it does not support the conclusion. Toilets can also be cleaned using other substances like vinegar, lemons etc., which are not harmful to our health. The unstated fallacy is that, “Substances used to clean toilets are unfit for human consumption.”
(4) Sometimes, a cursory glance at a statement can give you quick clues to its authenticity, or inauthenticity. Take the example at the very beginning of this article.
“A Harward study reveals that eating potatoes before 7 am in the morning increases the chances of brain ulcer by 12%.”
You can tell that it’s fake just by looking at it:
- “Harward” isn’t the name of any university. It’s a rather small college in Melbourne that offers only diplomas.
- Brains don’t get ulcers.
- Who in the world eats potatoes before 7 am, anyway?
Bringing It All Together
Muslims need to strike a balance in every aspect of their lives. While we must trust other believers and build strong bonds with them, we don’t accept hearsay statements at face value, nor help propagate them. We must take into perspective the whole forest, and not get lost among the trees.
Grohol, John M. “Delusion of Grandeur”. Psych Central, 17 Jul 2016. Web. Date retrieved: 23 Nov 2016. http://psychcentral.com/encyclopedia/delusion-of-grandeur/
Ibn Hajar. Fath al-bari sharh sahih al-bukhari. Web. Date retrieved: 23 Nov 2016.
Islamqa. Fatwa no. 14212. https://islamqa.info/en/14212
Khan, Nouman Ali. “Quran Cover to Cover: Al-Hujurat 6-11”. Bayyinah.tv. Web. Date retrieved: 23 Nov 2016.
Nawawi, Sharh ‘ala muslim. Web. Date retrieved: 23 Nov 2016. http://library.islamweb.net/newlibrary/display_book.php?bk_no=53&ID=5&idfrom=16&idto=23&bookid=53&startno=0