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Ancient Islamic scholars warned against fake news

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Fake news has become a nuisance all over the world. We notice it daily with little ability to do anything to stop it. Western scholars have defined and studied it, but so did ancient Islamic scholars.

These Islamic scholars lived between 600 and 700 century A.D., but their wisdom and advice about truth and falsehood still apply today.

Differentiating truth from falsehood

Syed Ali Hussain

Syed Ali Hussain

Foremost is to acquire an ability to differentiate truth from lies. Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, presents a simple formula to achieve this:

“Verily, there is nothing between truth and falsehood but a span of four fingers ….” Then he placed four fingers between his eye and ear and said, “Falsehood is to say, ‘I heard,’ while the truth is to say, ‘I saw.’

Interestingly, President Ronald Reagan once alluded to this as “trust, but verify!”

Often, we seek truth from individuals. However, Imam Ali emphasizes the importance of personal research and investigation to assess right from wrong. Once the fact is identified, he says to look for individuals who are associated with the truth – those who can then be deemed as trustworthy. “Verily the truth is not known through men; know the truth [first] and you will know its people,” he says.

Support the truth

Truth is often hard to bear because it comes with trouble. However, history has time and again shown that the fruits of truth are sweet. Imam Ali describes the truth as “heavy but wholesome, whereas falsehood is light but plagued.”

Another Islamic scholar, Imam al-Baqir, the fifth Shia Imam, emphasizes this by advising his son to “endure the truth even if it is bitter.”

Often, people avoid the truth because of social pressures and fear of harm from authorities. Prophet Mohammed suggests that the importance of speaking truth in front of a ruler: “Lo! Fear of people must never prevent any man from telling the truth when he knows it; truly the best jihad is a true word spoken before an unjust ruler.”

Accept the truth

Another critical aspect of identifying truth from falsehood is the source of the message. The idea is to accept messages from branded sources. However, media companies may have vested interests and their own agenda. In such a situation, it is essential for everyday people to critically assess messages from both big and small sources before sharing them in their social networks. Prophet Mohammed explains this point:

“Accept the truth from anyone who comes to you with it – be he lowly or noble, even if he is detestable to you. And reject falsehood from anyone who comes to you with it – be he lowly or noble, even if he is beloved to you.”

Avoid rumors and gossip

Fake messages are hard to distinguish from authentic ones. This may be because people who craft false messages often mix it with some truth. Some people get confused and mistakenly accept the falsehood as truth. Thus, it is extremely important not to spread any rumor or gossip and to make all efforts to guard one’s speech and tweets! Imam al-Sadiq, the sixth Shia Imam, says the man of intellect “must be well aware of the times he lives in, attentive of his affairs and guarding of his tongue.”

Indeed, Prophet Mohammad emphasizes the importance of avoiding haste and verifying truth: “Verily haste has ruined people, and if instead, people proceeded with caution no one would be ruined.”

— Syed Ali Hussain is an assistant professor at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He specializes in social media research.

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