To withdraw

Last night, I happened upon these words attributed to the Prophet, peace be upon him:

‘There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar will be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous will be trusted and the trustworthy one considered treacherous; and the Ruwaybidah will speak out.’ It was said: Who are the Ruwaybidah? The Prophet, peace be upon him, replied: ‘The lowly, contemptible one who will speak out about public affairs.’

I have read these words before, and each time they have the same effect: I quake in fear. It is what compelled me to immediately put my website into private mode. Am I of the ruwaybidah?

As I did my isha prayer shortly afterwards, I began to interrogate myself once more. Isn’t it time to truly withdraw? To leave the pontificating to the learned and good? To remember my place and cease the perpetual commentary on life, the universe and everything?

The reality is that there are millions of people like me: each of us believing that we have something so important to say, that must be articulated, as if our words truly make a difference to anything.

I have withdrawn from social media. I slowly weaned myself off Facebook over a period of about a year, narrowing my groups of friends until only my parents and siblings remained, training my ego to cease posting. Finally, when I had broken all the chains, I finally deleted my account for good. Nevertheless, I occasionally peak into the world of Twitter though my web browser, spying on the conversations of twitterati.

Last night, I cast my eyes over the tweets of the who’s who of muslamic social media, as they duelled over the latest controversies. Seasoned bloggers, activists, imams, scholars, website admins, pillars of community, academics, celebrity converts, self-employed journalists; some greatly learned, some as lowly as me.

All these words, words, words. All these voices, clamouring, seeking to be heard, seeking attention, and likes and retweets. Is it all just self-deception? Aren’t we all just ruwaybidah, thinking our words so very important, when in fact they are not all that important at all?

For a decade or more I have wrestled with these thoughts. Each time on the verge of withdrawing, a friend petitions me: do not stop, and ultimately I carry on, my ego convincing me that what I have to say is somehow important. The millions on Twitter and Facebook believe the same: each one of us convinced that we have some kind of special gift that we must use to vanquish the other, to defend whatever it is that we hold sacred.

There is a kind of freedom which comes from withdrawing; from disappearing. The nafs, of course, call us back. “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about,” as Oscar Wilde wryly noted, “and that is not being talked about.” The nafs call back to us: won’t people miss you when you’re gone? Well the answer to that is a firm “no”. Move on.

I have been asking myself lately, “Then what is my role?” If I am anonymous, and have disappeared from the public sphere, how then do I change the world for the better, or have some kind of positive impact as I believed we are called to have?

Here, I cast myself back in time, to imagine a period not so long ago before we were all so interconnected. Perhaps into an isolated village before the industrial revolution. Perhaps not even that far back. Perhaps back into a provincial town in the 1980s. What impact did most people have then, when their influence extended to their immediate community at most? Perhaps as the leader of a Bible study group in a small neighbourhood of a small town. Or as the manager of a small business somewhere, presiding over a pool of typists and telex machines.

What is my role? Well through work, I support clinicians who in turn support vulnerable people accessing mental health services in their time of need. Is this not service? Is this not my role? And at home: as a parent and spouse and neighbour. In the olden days, weren’t these the roles of ordinary folk: to live good lives in their immediate vicinity?

This is now I rationalise my imminent withdrawal, if the Most Merciful wills. Let the learned and wise speak out on the important public affairs of the day. Let us lowly contemptible ones withdraw, to live more realistic lives, in which we train our nafs, change our souls, clean our hearts and impact others through positive living. All the rest, it seems, is mere make-believe.

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