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Understanding Television

By Khalid Baig

What Can Be Done?

(Author's Request: Please turn off your television set as you read this article.)

Television has spread like a wild fire in the world, including the Muslim world. It seems to have overcome the limitations of space and time.

Consider place. In Saudi Arabia, one can find the imprints of Hollywood only a few yards away from the Haram, the most sacred of all sanctuaries of Islam. Videocassettes are easily available at stores. A hotel attendant, at a walking distance from the Haram al-Sharif in Makkah can be found busy watching English movies on the television in his office even as the prayers are going on. At the Jeddah airport, the Umrah pilgrims can watch a European beauty contest courtesy of an Egyptian TV channel being broadcast to the airport television sets.

Consider time. Ramadan is the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar, a period of time that is to be devoted to direct acts of worship of Allah. Yet, during Ramadan, believers around the world can be found glued to their television sets when they should be busy making dua, doing dhikr and tilawa or offering nafl prayers.

Or consider the time of suffering. Hardly a day goes by when we do not get the news of pain and suffering from Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, or a dozen other hot spots around the globe. Yet, between all the suffering and grieving that accompanies the tragedy, the dish antennas on the rooftops have been flourishing. In the past at times of catastrophes people would turn to Allah, would stop going to the cinema houses, and would repent from sins, even though temporarily. Today, there is an ever-increasing appetite for the television fun. This is also true in the lands closest to the areas of suffering. On days when a strike is called to protest Indian atrocities in Kashmir, the video stores in Karachi run out of videos of Indian movies.

Throughout the world religious, moral and social values have been drastically undermined by this great "technological gift" of the century. And entire nations seem to be helplessly "enjoying" the invasion. When people are doing nothing, they watch television. When they are doing something else, they still have television in the background. The device has contributed to the addition of a new space in the architecture of the private home: the TV lounge. It is a space where perfect strangers come to pedal nudity, immorality, and hedonism. This is the space, which increasingly controls the entire house.

It is fashionable to complain about "excessive" sex and violence on television. Even those who make money from this enterprise willingly do that. CNN tycoon Ted Turner said in July 93 before a U.S Congressional subcommittee: "I don't need experts to tell me that the amount of violence on television today and its increasingly graphic portrayal can be harmful to children. Television violence is the single most significant factor contributing to violence in America." And a poll released in February 95 in the U.S. by Children Now, whose directors include TV producers and Warner Brothers Chairman, reported that most children believe that what they see on television encourages fornication, disrespect for parents, telling lies, and aggressive behavior.

The most significant thing here is that what the TV industry wants us to discuss (and we willingly follow) is what is ON television, not television itself. Everyone will wholeheartedly agree with the problems with TV programs and offer all kinds of advice. (Watch the programs with your children. Tell them what is wrong. Be critical. Be creative.) Irrational and meaningless as it is, this exercise will nonetheless soothe your irritation. In the meantime, keep on watching. It is fun. It is also unavoidable.

In about two decades, this "wonderful" technical development has played havoc with societies around the globe. But what is even more unprecedented is the ambivalence with which these societies face this greatest of all invasions. Underlying this is a strongly held belief that television is a neutral tool that can be used with equal facility for good or evil. Unfortunately, this position has been taken without any critical examination of the facts. It is about time that we approached the subject with an open mind.

Neutral Tool?

Is technology ever neutral? "[Every technology] has within its physical form a predisposition toward being used in certain ways and not others," writes Niel Postman, chair of the department of Communication Arts at New York University. "Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral." (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985).

What about television? It reflects the idea that serious discourse can be carried out through pictures instead of words. As Postman explains: "The single most important fact about television is that people watch it, which is why it is called ‘television.' And what they watch, and like to watch, are moving pictures__ millions of them, of short duration and dynamic variety. It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest."

Words and pictures do not occupy the same universe of discourse. A piece of writing requires one to go beyond the shape of the letters to read them. It requires thought to understand what is being said. Television does not require reflection, in fact it does not even permit it. That is why little children can spend hours in front of the mini screen. Television can titillate, it cannot teach. It can bring images into our heart, not ideas into our mind. It appeals to the emotions, not the intellect.

But isn't a picture worth a thousand words? Is it? It is important to note that this claim itself is made in words. A picture cannot make any claims. For reason, arguments, claims, and judgment belong in the universe of words not pictures. That is why advertisers love pictures. Consider an ad for, say, Coca-Cola, that just shows young people singing, dancing, having fun, and enjoying the drink. The audiences make the connection between happiness and Coke. This ad cannot be refuted. It makes no claim, so there is nothing to refute.

Medium Is The Message

The above explains Marshal McLuhan's famous aphorism. The inherent, built in biases of a medium allow certain types of messages and not others. The communication is conditioned by the medium. It is enhanced or distorted by it. The medium is the message. And when the medium is TV, the message is Entertainment. As Postman notes: "Entertainment is the supra ideology of all discourse on television." Whether it is news, science, religion, or education, if it is happening on TV, it must follow the dictates of entertainment.

In fact, a new term has been coined indicating a blend of education and entertainment: Edutainment. It smells like the language problem of a TV baby. But remember that it is already being used by the serious press. Which suggests that edutainment will produce even more edutainment!

Like A Drug

Actually, TV is not just another kind of entertainment either. As a project by the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S. involving 1200 subjects in nine studies over a 13 year period found in 1990, television is like a drug. The researchers asked the subjects, ages 10 to 82, to note down their activities and moods every time a beeper was activated, which was done randomly. The researchers found that when people sit down to watch TV, particularly for long periods, they tend to be in low moods. The longer they watch, the less able they are to concentrate. As time goes on, they grow sadder, lonelier, more irritable, and more hostile. Although people are relaxed when the television set is on, when they turn it off, they are less relaxed than before they began, "much like a drug that makes people feel better while they are doing it but worse afterward." And just like a drug the weaker segments of the society are its greatest target. Thus in the U.S. blacks tend to watch more TV than whites. And now thanks to satellite TV transmissions over which the poor countries have no control, the rest of the world is being turned into the U.S. black under class.

Islamic Work And Television

Can this dangerous drug be somehow converted into a medicine? Not too long ago, a young professional in the U.S. approached prominent Muslim scholar and Deputy Cairman of the Jeddah based Islamic Fiqh Council of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), Justice Taqi Usmani to inquire about his profession. He produced computer graphics for the television and motion picture industry. This is the age of the media, and the only effective way to spread Islam today is through television and movies, he argued. If we do not learn the trade how shall we be able to produce such programs and if we don't who will, he inquired. Yet, some people had told him that it was not a good profession.

"I have given a lot of anxious thought to this issue," replied Justice Usmani in his characteristic measured tone, weighing every word. "And I have reached the conclusion that the cause of Islam cannot be served through television, especially under the current circumstances. You should seek another line of work."

Frankly, there are lot of enthusiasts who may be totally bewildered by this answer for it challenges both conventional wisdom as well as some dearly held dreams. They may even consider anyone making this suggestion as belonging to the Flat Earth Society: backward, anti-progress, ignorant of today's realities. Let us grant them their day in court and look at their case objectively.

The enthusiasts have shown interest in three primary areas. The first deals with propagation of Islam. There are lots of sincere Muslims putting lot of hope in a yet-to-be-released video that will attract the people of the world to Islam by the thousands. They are simply confusing Dawah with propaganda! Dawah means inviting people to the Straight Path by relaying the True Message to them without any distortion. It is a very serious message and requires a serious medium to deliver it. The message is for their own benefit and what they do with it is their own business. Our job is done once we have communicated the message correctly. Our job is not to manipulate people into submission to Allah any more than it is to coerce them into it. A Dawah worker is a teacher, a propagandist is a manipulator. Television is a good tool for manipulating, not for teaching.

The second area deals with the education ("edutainment") of children. Many videos have already been produced for this purpose. In one program from a popular series of such videos, a puppet named Adam drives a skateboard to the mosque. Scenes of Adam doing his antics are mixed with the videos of real children praying. But there is no doubt that Adam is the hero of this story. Here is a clear case of the medium distorting the message. The children who learn to pray this way may learn the mechanics of Salat, but they would have paid a terrible price for it. The idea of Salat will be associated in their mind with the images of puppets, skateboards, and the idea of fun. Missing will be the spiritual dimension of prayer, the solemnness and grace of this pillar of Islam. Such videos are very popular as they help assuage the guilt feelings of parents over their failure to control the TV in the first place.

To be fair there is a useful role for these videos but it is not normally perceived. Doctors use nicotine patches to help their patients stop smoking. Nicotine is not a medicine, but it becomes therapeutic under the circumstances. Similarly, the TV addicts may be helped by such videos to get over their addiction. It might work if that is the goal. But this is very different from the view that here is a Brave New Way of teaching Islam. The children and their parents must realize that ultimately they have to learn their religion the old fashioned way: read books, listen to lectures, work hard.

The third type of videos are used by relief organizations showing the terrible situation of Muslims in Kashmir, Bosnia, Palestine and elsewhere. The intentions are noble, the results look great. But someone must ask the hard question: Why should the Muslims need disaster pornography before they can come to the help of their brothers and sisters? What are the implications of this practice for both present and future?

There are, of course, cases where the TV is being used against its grain, where the only video is that of a talking head. Such Islamic programs in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, as elsewhere, may not contain all the dangers cited above, solely because there the TV is being used just as an expensive radio. The problem is such programs will not be able to withstand the onslaught of CNN or MTV, of dazzling colors and dynamic pictures. The question remains how long can you use a tool against its grain?

The simple fact is that no one buys a TV and VCR because they desperately wanted to learn about Islam and it was the best way of doing it. The TV lounge is not a study room and all the Islamic videos in the world are not going to make it one. It is a peace of Hollywood. The rest is camouflage or self-deception. The earlier we get out of it, the better.

What Can Be Done?

Television is powerful. It is everywhere. Is there anything that us mortals can do about it? The answer is yes. Things can be done at individual, as well as collective levels. At the individual level, try using the ON/OFF switch. It takes some effort and will power, but the device can be turned off. The key is to involve the entire family. Those nervous about the idea may rest assured that there is no known disease linked to lack of exposure to TV! Also those who have tried it know that it becomes easier with time. Community Organizations and Islamic Schools can help by educating the people about the perils of watching TV, countering the social pressures, and providing healthy alternatives.

Ramadan: The TV Free Month. Our best chance of kicking the television habit comes in Ramadan every year. It is the time of year when every Muslim who has any trace of Iman in his or her heart, is naturally inclined toward doing good and staying away from evil. And it should be like that. Did not the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, curse the Muslim who finds Ramadan but does not use it to seek forgiveness for his previous sins? If we cannot leave sins or vain activities during Ramadan, when can we? We not only have the strongest moral and religious reasons to do so, it is also easy because the regular activities of Ramadan leave little time to be wasted in front of television.

Muslim organizations and communities will do a great service by launching a campaign to declare Ramadan as the TV free month. Urge all the Muslims in your community to turn it off for at least one month. And who knows, after one month many may decide to stay away from it because of the personal insights they got through the experience.

Of course, if you are convinced, do not wait until the next Ramadan. Start today.


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