The onset of social media platforms has set a stage for the emergence of self-proclaimed leaders and spokespeople from the Muslim community under the guise of various titles and descriptions. We are witnessing a potential catastrophe that may leave a trail of issues for generations to come. This is not to negate the credibility of those who have actually earned these titles and positions within our community (a discussion to be had another time – what earns a person such positions and authority), but rather to address the issue of those who have not.
I will suggest – in no particular order – some areas I feel have led to the current crisis we experience, and which are evidently contributing to furthering the existence of this crisis. There will of course be other areas and reasons to look at. I do not claim to have a complete overlook, nor do I claim to be free from any of the issues discussed below or possess the exact or correct solutions. I will, however, suggest some potential remedies and ways we may move forward based upon my limited experience and the guidance received from others that are more senior and experienced than I am. The main goal is to start a discussion, and perhaps a collectively agreed route of rectification. I apologise in advance if there is a level of pessimism expressed. I mean only to highlight and discuss, so that we can progress as a community.
Lack of guidance from those with experience
One of the clearest reasons for the crisis at hand is a lack of guidance from those with experience. Whether the case is that those with experience and seniority are not presenting themselves, or that those who rise to online prominence refuse to take the advice of elders and seniors when presented, is something I cannot understand completely. I assume the case is that it is the latter; the guidance provided by elders is rejected. However, it would be wrong to claim this definitively without substantial evidence. What I can say from my limited experience is that I definitely know of individuals with online prominence who have been advised numerous times and offered support from grassroots leaders with over 20 years of experience within our communities, but they have dismissed the guidance and support offered. I also know of young aspiring social media influencers who have taken other young people of a similar level of experience to themselves as their advisors and “murabbīs” (nurturers/teachers) solely due to the latter’s possession of more information or access to information via traditional texts and teachers.
This presents another issue that needs to be addressed: what is a leader/murabbi/teacher? The mere possession of information or access to information should not equate to an entitlement to any of these titles or positions.
Are we seeking guidance, or validation in the guise of guidance?
I believe it can be generally agreed that guidance should not be sought from individuals of a similar age and experience. This defeats the purpose of seeking guidance and can easily become a form of seeking validation and justification. Seeking the “advice” of a young and like-minded person – even if they have more information – will often result in mere validation and justification of the issue at hand as opposed to real advice that may often take the form of what we do not want to, but need to, hear.
Another factor to consider regarding the guidance of young online “leaders” and “influencers” is the fact that it is very difficult for a person to accept the guidance and leadership of others to begin with, let alone with the ego developed by the online attention and pre-conceived validation formed by followers and subscribers. The fact is that once a person has reached a substantial level of fame, it becomes extremely difficult to accept taking direction from others. This is especially true in today’s world, where validation is accessible to all. There is a remedy for this, which I will go on to discuss, with permission of the Most Merciful.
Are we suffering the consequences of a recurring problem?
Another area I would like to bring attention to (although perhaps it is not my place to elaborate) is the suitability of some who are in positions of seniority and leadership. Perhaps what we are seeing with the crisis of the new generation before us is a direct result of some of the seniors of our time not receiving adequate training and nurturing themselves before taking up the positions through which they arrived at their places today. Will we let this continue with the new generation?
Followership: a contributing factor to Prophetic success
Followership is just as important as leadership, and in fact is a pre-requisite to good leadership. One who cannot follow is not ready to lead. Followership is defined as the ability and willingness to follow. It is also described as being integral to the success of leadership. We often focus on the qualities of leadership, but very rarely do we discuss followership.
It could be argued that one of the contributing factors to the success of the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) was his followers. The willingness of the companions to obey and follow the Prophet’s guidance and commands set them apart from Prophet Musa’s followers, who were described in the Qur’ān as being disobedient and constantly rebellious. A lesson we can learn here is that success is not defined by leadership alone.
If we look to the example of the Prophet and the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, we can see that leadership was preceded by followership. All four of the Rightly Guided Caliphs were led and taught not only by the Prophet but also those who preceded them in leadership.
Likewise, if we look to the successful periods throughout not only Islamic history but also world history, we will find a clear structure to leadership, attainment of leadership, and succession in leadership. A prime example in Islamic history is that of Salāḥuddin, who followed Nūr al-Dīn Zengi, who followed Imād al-Dīn Zengi. Salāḥuddin did not lead based on his own self-proclaimed right to leadership; his leadership was earned through followership and subsequent experience.
Another example can be found in the four great Imams of Islamic jurisprudence. Taken as leaders by consensus of the Sunni scholars and masses that came after them for over a thousand years, these Imams did not become leaders in their field through a self-claimed right. Imam Abu Ḥanīfa studied for over 20 years with his teachers, and did so until the end of their lives; this was followership. Under the principle and teachings of followership, Imam Mālik did not give rulings until he was accredited and allowed to do so by at least seventy of his teachers. In light of this principle, Imam Aḥmad is quoted to have said that a person should not produce legal rulings until he has memorised the legal verdicts given by those who preceded him.
Leadership is not for everyone
We live in an age where many young people aspire to be the next Malcolm X, but (as one of my teachers said) we are not willing to go through the process that Malcolm went through. His rise to leadership followed a complete reform and discipline of the self, as well as self-education and followership, He was led by Mr. Elijah Muhammad, trained and nurtured by the framework of the Nation of Islam. The aforementioned individuals were not seeking leadership to begin with; the fact that leadership is being sought is a major problem in and of itself. The famous companion Abu Dharr narrates how he requested an official position from the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), who replied: “Abu Dharr, you are not suitable, and (the position) is a trust. It will be a cause of disgrace and remorse on the Day of Resurrection, except for the one who takes it up with a full sense of responsibility and fulfils what is entrusted to him.” Leadership is therefore not for everyone.
If we look to the more recent history of anti-colonial movements within the Islamic world, we find that the leadership of these movements had come through the ranks of a structured hierarchy and framework of spirituality. This is seen in the likes of Al-Sannūsi, Al-Khaṭṭābī, Imam Shāmil, ʿUmar al-Mukhtār, Amīr ʿAbd al-Qādir, and others.
The online problem in brief: rise of the unknown and unqualified
In the realm of the online sphere today, we find the complete opposite to the process of followership and education preceding leadership. Unknown and unqualified individuals (another discussion to be had – what qualifies a person?) with no attachment to any sort of hierarchy, spiritual framework, or educational infrastructure have made platforms for themselves in various fields. They have achieved this through the use of controversy, refutations, clickbait, response videos, highlighting controversial opinions or intricacies, and other means of bringing attention to themselves. These individuals grow their platforms through social media and then establish a large base of followers and subscribers, which in turn “justifies” their work and presence.
The online problem in brief: entrenchment
Once they have established their presence online by acquiring a large base of followers and subscribers, these individuals are then approached by institutions, charities, TV channels, and perhaps even seniors who want to reach the masses. Online “influencers” are particularly popular with the youth, who are easily impressed and inclined towards the drama they create. These personalities are further entrenched as spokespeople and leaders for our communities. All the while, the question of the suitability of these individuals is not discussed, neither privately nor publicly. They are left to their own devices, and the issue of suitability is overlooked as they are seen to be calling “the masses” to Islam. Is this actually the case? Are they actually calling to Islam, or is it a dramatisation of elements of Islam that are irrelevant to the masses and the youth?
We see that what is happening is rather than leadership being attained through followership, it is being self-proclaimed via establishment of online platforms in very short time periods. There is no learning from experience and slowly working toward the capacity to lead on a larger scale. This is further entrenched by the presence of virtual “followers” and the perceived backing of institutions and seniors who interact with these personalities and may even share platforms with them.
Self-centred in nature: a medium suitable for our cause?
I would like to add here that the nature of the online “platform growing” landscape is a very self-centred one. Institutions and individuals will often utilise “influencers” with a large base of followers and subscribers for their own gain to simply increase their own number of followers and subscribers. When this happens, principles are lost and lines are blurred. It becomes a question of “who can help us grow the quickest?” rather than “what message are we imparting and who are we endorsing?” It may well start off with the message being the driving force in the online arena, but this very often becomes lost quickly in the search for large numbers of followers and likes. “The larger the outreach, the greater the impact and the voice of the message.” However, reality shows that those who seek numbers will succumb to the consumption demands of the masses, and will eventually produce content in the shape of entertainment rather than education.
An underlying issue?
Another question to ask here is: who has given us the authority to deem our message as being the “correct” one? Is this not a self-proclaimed call to leadership itself? When speaking on behalf of an established hierarchy, the voice has been justified and earned. But when we speak as individuals, we have to ask the question: why do we assume we have the right to speak in the first place? Perhaps there is an underlying issue here.
A lack of spiritual nurturing: a systemic problem
One of the major factors of the crisis we are currently witnessing, and perhaps one of the hardest factors to remedy, is the lack of spiritual nurturing.
Firstly, many well-known institutions of Islamic instruction do not offer structured spiritual nurturing or education. They may offer their students an awareness of the texts, but a text without a teacher proves extremely problematic, as misunderstanding, mis-contextualisation, or misapplication commonly occur. A student may endeavour to find such structures outside of their academic setting, but this is not common amongst most students.
Secondly, many prominent online personalities have not actually graduated from a formal institution of Islamic education, nor have they taken part in a structured educational program on the Islamic sciences. This further compounds the problem at hand. In fact, many of these personalities have not received any form of higher education at all. On the other hand, due to their lack of instruction in the foundational sciences of Islam, those who have received higher education may unknowingly fall victim to the underlying philosophies being pushed within the academic realms they frequented (or currently attend) as students.
As Muslims, we do not discriminate or judge based upon a person’s academic achievement or level of education. However, here we are talking about leadership of our community. Our standards and expectations should be set as high as possible. If a captain is not educated enough to sail his ship, he will drown, along with his crew and passengers. The captain would be deemed complicit in the subsequent loss of life. Were an unqualified person to take the helm and attempt to steer the ship, he would be arrested and perhaps clinically assessed for possible mental instabilities. Why is it then that we are so lacklustre when it comes to the grand ship of Islam?
A lack of spiritual nurturing: the consequences
A lack of spiritual nurturing can leave a person in a state of complete ignorance and heedlessness to the sicknesses of the heart. These sicknesses are magnified and further fuelled by the online scene. Examples of these sicknesses include a love of fame, love of leadership, love of controversy and argumentation, love of showing off, and of course the destructive and lowly desires of the stomach and private parts. These sicknesses show up throughout social media. For example, intellectual showcasing of “gems” or “clarification of opinions” may very well be a means of showing off or attention seeking masked under the guise of educating and guiding. The individuals themselves are unaware of their real motives, as they have not been trained in the purification of the heart. They are unaware of the symptoms and remedies for the sicknesses of the heart, which may be subtle and unnoticeable. A person may assume they do not want fame, or that they have no care for leadership or showing off, but as Imam Al-Ghazālī says in his Iḥyā, these sicknesses often start out delicately and can easily go unnoticed. If they are not caught when they are just seedlings, they grow and become rooted deep in one’s heart until they become extremely difficult to get rid of. The sick heart is led by its sicknesses rather than the upright principles of Islamic conduct.
Social media and mental health: questions that need answers
If we take a brief look at the structure of social media and its modes of operation, it is very easy to recognise that these platforms are designed for self-promotion, controversy, and egotism. This is not to say that social media is entirely bad or completely evil, but the impact that social media has on our perceptions, hearts, and mental states is not something that should be ignored. There are debates taking place in parliaments and political institutions globally on the topic of regulating social media platforms. Psychologists are studying the link between socially destructive mental health conditions (such as narcissism) and the use of social media; some studies have shown a link between the two in various ways. Research on other mental health conditions and social media usage are also surfacing, such as the link between social media platforms and depression as well as anxieties of various types. As inheritors of a great heritage of spiritual purification and understanding of the heart, should we not be conducting assessments and developing guidance for the use of such platforms? Should those leading our communities even have such platforms in the first place? If they do, should we not have some sort of regulatory systems developed to keep them in check?
The issue of the self, projection of experiences, and trauma
The link between social media and mental health conditions leads to another important area that should not be overlooked, and one that is perhaps seldom understood: the issue of the self. Many of the young individuals who rise to social media stardom may unknowingly have underlying issues that are unresolved or undealt with. We all have areas of ourselves that we need to work on, some natural, and others consequences of experiences and personal histories. Some of these areas can adversely impact our perceptions, opinions, and interactions with others. For example, a young person may have had negative experiences with the opposite gender, or they may have been abused or mistreated. They may unknowingly project these experiences onto their beliefs, opinions, and interactions with others. They may even develop a hatred for those they associate with their abuser. However, Islam teaches us to be just, and that this hatred is not befitting of a leader.
A further example can be seen in people with low self-esteem who thrive off the validation processes offered through social media. This only fuels their involvement with social media and their need for likes and gratification. If controversy and fiasco bring them the attention and fulfilment they crave, controversy and fiasco will become their vehicle. Another example can be seen in individuals with inferiority complexes who may project this onto others. This may be in the form of promoting hatred of those they feel inferior to, or trying to emulate and overcompensate to please them. If this person is a social media “influencer” or a self-proclaimed leader, they may do these actions in the name of Islam. Others may have an issue with always wanting to please, and so can very easily be influenced by public trends or pressures to conform.
These are only a few examples of some of the issues relating to the inner self that we may be unaware of, but which can have a real impact on our personal discourse and opinions. This type of awareness generally only comes through a structured program of self-development or hierarchy that is followed under the guidance of seniors who themselves have been nurtured and educated. A leader needs to be aware of his or her own biases and issues so as to prevent them from creeping into his or her public discourse.
Leadership is not for the immature
The program of self-development we have described above requires a very mature level of self-awareness. Leadership, therefore, is not for the immature. The aforementioned issues can be discussed at length, and in-depth studies have been developed on issues of the inner self and remedying the consequences of lived experiences. The point here, though, is to simply raise awareness to the impact that these issues are having on social media “influencers” and self-proclaimed leaders.
Vetting and conduct of practice: a principle of Islam
We have no system of vetting or accountability in place, so we leave those not fit for purpose free to do as they please. In the realms of Islamic jurisprudence, a judge is deemed unfit to work when they are in a state of heightened emotion such as anger, as this may lead to an imbalance in judgement. Should the same approach not be taken with those making public judgements “on behalf of Islam and the truth” daily? Systems of regulation not only provide safety for the masses, they also protect those under regulation from themselves. As humans, we are weak and we will ultimately stand in front of God and be held responsible for our actions and endeavours. Any system, framework, or hierarchy that may offer us protection from our own potential slip-ups and mistakes would be welcomed by the sincere.
Maturity in leadership: do we have it?
This leads us to another area that needs to be addressed. As we have discussed, leadership is not for the immature. The maturity to see the bigger picture and the ability to focus on the issues that really matter over those that are irrelevant are key components of good leadership. A leader is not a leader due to strength or intelligence alone. The real distinction of a leader is vision and direction. Are these two qualities present amongst social media personalities and within our leadership today? If we look at the current online trends, we see that social media personalities – save a few – are busy debating, refuting, discussing intricacies that are irrelevant today (but were relevant in past centuries), focusing on areas we cannot tackle, criticising, jumping from topic to topic, and more. We even find that individuals from grassroots or offline organisations may split due to online debacles and disagreements. Is this leadership?
On the ground, we find a similar situation. Organisations fall victim to the egos of those heading them, where it becomes about the name and status of the leadership position rather than the function and purpose of the organisation. I am not claiming that this is always the case, but it is quite common. How many well-intended organisations have been pulled down by the hands of the very community they seek to serve? Why? Groups are attacked, organisations are “exposed”, and institutions are shunned in the name of principles and piety. Is this the real reason? Or is it the lack of maturity to see the bigger picture? Perhaps there are underlying issues alluded to above: a desire to lead, an issue of ego, or being unable to live with others being in higher positions.
Systems of hierarchy and frameworks of spirituality: a remedy
Systems of hierarchy and frameworks of spirituality offer a remedy to this issue of immaturity and lack of foresight. It is important to be taught by those with the wisdom and experience to point out the greater goals that lie ahead, so as to avoid becoming stuck in the mud of trivial matters and personal sicknesses. Sometimes, young people simply need to be put in their place and told to remain quiet. A simple look at the Prophetic way offers us not only theoretical education, but also insights into the importance of a hierarchy and spiritual nurturing.
Rise of the individual over the collective
Another factor that needs to be accounted for is that the online world gives rise to individuals over a collective. Working with a collective – whether an institution, formal group of associates or peers, or an official regulated school of thought – provides us with an anchor that keeps us from drifting too far off into waters uncharted. We are kept in check and grounded by those around us who know us. If we start to punch above our weight, we are reminded of our place by those who have their feet on the ground. Our views and opinions are weighed up against that of the collective. We are made aware of areas and pitfalls we had not noticed ourselves.
The online world has given platforms to those who work of their own accord for their own agenda, whether well intended or not. They have no responsibility to a group nor accountability, so they can say and do what they like without immediate consequence. They may act on impulses and merely seek the opinions of those who will validate and justify their decisions. They do not learn how to swallow their pride and take the approach of others over their own. This results in the chaos we see online today; a clash of egos and a constant war of words and opinions. This only leads to confusion for the masses and further prevents us from making a change on the real issues that matter.
A cost worth paying?
As mentioned previously, there are many areas that can be taken into account as contributing factors to the current crisis. Online platforms themselves need to be assessed and understood. As alluded to throughout this discussion, the benefits offered by the online world often come at a cost. This cost seems to be a heavy one for leaders, social media spokespeople, individuals, and communities. Perhaps it is a cost we are yet to fully understand.
Suggested remedies: a contribution
In conclusion, I suggest the following three remedies. This is not a comprehensive list, but rather a contribution in the form of ideas. They are simple to put on paper but require a collective effort to achieve.
The first remedy is a system of hierarchy that encompasses the four mainstream schools of Sunni Islam (the Hanafī, Mālikī, Shāfi’ī, and Ḥanbalī schools) and the mainstream schools of Islamic theology (the Ash’arī, Māturīdī, and traditional Atharī schools). What this would look like is a discussion to be had collectively by the heads of each of the schools in the Western world. It may be that each school elects a group of scholars and students of knowledge to participate in and head a council. A president could be elected on a termly basis, and public personalities, institutions, and formal groups are held accountable to this council. Such a council would prove valuable in other areas we are currently facing difficult challenges in, such as marriage, regulation of legal verdicts, and perhaps even political participation. Would this work? Yes it would, if sincerity and truthfulness to the progression of Islam and the message of God were the driving factors for the existence of such a council.
The second remedy is the adoption of a framework of ethical practice and conduct by institutions and personalities involved on the ground and in the public discourse of Islam. This framework would be based upon the principles of Islam, with a spiritual ethos at its core. On an individual level, I suggest that all persons involved in any work related to Islam take up a personal project of spiritual rectification. This could be adopting a particular school accredited by well-known scholars and students of knowledge, or simply following a guided reading of the books of the great spiritual masters such as Al-Ghazālī or Ibn Al-Qayyim.
The third remedy is a system of accreditation for Imams, public speakers, activists, and those working within the remits of Islam. This system should be agreed upon by all and should be one that is not based on dogmatism or promotion of partisanship and group politics, but rather founded on education and development. The heritage of Sunni Islam is vast and encompassing. We can surely come together as a collective upon the core principles of Sunni Islam in finding a system of suitable leadership, accreditation, accountability, and support.
Again, I do not claim to be free of any of the above-mentioned issues myself, but I recognise the need for collective change, and I hope that the discussion presented above is a contributing effort toward that change.
 Imam Abu Ḥanīfa, Imam Mālik, Imam Al-Shāfi’ī, and Imam Aḥmad – the founding figures of the four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Their lives are documented and detailed in great length in various books. See: The Four Imams – Their Lives, Works and Their Schools of Thought, by Muhammad Abu Zahra.
 Collected by Muslim
 Aḥmad Al-Sannūsi, ʿAbdulKarīm Al-Khaṭṭābī, Imam Shāmil, ʿUmar al-Mukhtār, and Amīr ʿAbd al-Qādir were all prominent Muslim anti-colonial leaders. Various books have been authored documenting their lives and struggles. Further information can be found in various places online, such as oxfordislamicstudies.com
 Iḥyā ʿUlūm Al-Dīn (Revival of The Islamic Sciences), by Imam Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111 / 505 AH). Imam Al- Ghazālī was a scholar and leading Imam of the Islamic sciences, who received particular recognition and reverence for his works in Islamic jurisprudence, philosophy of various branches, Islamic theology, and his works on purification of the soul (most notably Iḥyā ʿUlūm Al-Dīn).
 The three mainstream orthodox schools of Sunni theology followed by the majority of Sunni Muslims worldwide are the Ashʿarī, Māturīdī, and Atharī schools. These were codified by the respective Imams of each school: Imam Abu Al-Hasan Al-Ashʿarī, Imam Abu Manṣūr Al-Māturīdī, and Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal. All three schools are based upon the Qur’ān and Prophetic traditions, with variations in their principles of interpretation.
 Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr ibn Ayyūb (d. 1350 / 751 AH). Ibn Al-Qayyim was a scholar and Imam of various sciences, with prominence in the Ḥanbalī school of Islamic jurisprudence. He received particular recognition for his works on purification of the soul, such as Madārīj Al-Sālikīn and Al-Jawāb Al-Kāfī, as well as his famous compendium on legal maxims, I’lām Al-Muwaqqi’īn ‘an Rabb Al-‘Ālamīn, and his multi-volume work on the biography of the Prophet, Zād Al-Maʿād.