Oh how we love to exploit imagery, to forge just the right associations in the minds of our audience. Every itinerant scholar in the making knows that to be taken seriously, their library of gold embossed volumes must feature as the backdrop to their latest YouTube video. Every rising star of social media knows who to be photographed with, and where and when. Place a politician before a library of classical works and the connotation is clear: here is a pious man, a scholar, embodying the religion of God.
Today you can be considered a social justice warrior merely by being photographed with a group of destitute children, who have no choice but to appear on your social media news feed, to be liked by ten thousand people and shared by hundreds more. Who recalls nowadays that the best deeds are those done in secret, performed purely for the pleasure of God? Instead we praise ourselves, celebrating our own advocacy for the poor and vulnerable.
Watch how we associate ourselves with the good deeds of others. By dropping the names of great ones into our conversations. By sharing on our social media channels the latest populist cause. Watch as we associate ourselves with the imagery of civil rights movements, reinforcing in the minds of our audience that our struggles are the same. Yes, we are Malcolm X, and our supporters are the Black Panthers.
No doubt many fall for these theatrics, but the Qur’an frequently warns us not to be people who say one thing but do something else. We are warned not to be hypocrites, who think to trick God, showing off to the people instead. As Luqman advised his son:
‘My son, if even the weight of a mustard seed were hidden in a rock or anywhere in the heavens or earth, God would bring it [to light], for He is all subtle and all aware. Keep up the prayer, my son; command what is right; forbid what is wrong; bear anything that happens to you steadfastly: these are things to be aspired to. Do not turn your nose up at people, nor walk about the place arrogantly, for God does not love arrogant or boastful people. Go at a moderate pace and lower your voice, for the ugliest of all voices is the braying of asses.’ — Qur’an 31:16-19
Nowadays we utilise all kinds of tricks to impress people. Mosques add synthetic echoes on the sound system to make sermons sound more powerful. Teachers sob and wail, despite saying nothing at all. When cornered, we pen powerful articles exploiting popular sentiment to show just how principled we are. Online we enumerate all of our good deeds, over-impressed by our own opinions and advocacy for our version of the truth. To the speeches of scholars and preachers, we add cinematic soundtracks which pull on emotions. To sermons we add images and video clips of human suffering. In our own defence, we utter lies with soft and humble voices, presenting ourselves as pious souls.
Perhaps men and women are convinced and persuaded by our exploitation of imagery, but know that nothing is hidden from the Lord of the worlds. All that we do, even if an atom or something less than that, God will bring to light. We may fool one another, but there is no fooling God. So let us reform ourselves and seek refuge in Him from presenting ourselves other than as we are.